Born To Be A Ham

I was surprised, and pleased, to see Stan Horzepa mentioned my blog in his weekly “Surfin'” feature on the American Radio Relay League’s website.

I’ve been a ham for nearly 40 years. Outside of family, it’s the longest running constant in my life.

My “Elmer,” as hams call their mentor or teacher, was Bob Semensohn. I have no idea where he is today. I remember little about him, other than he played piano and was helpful in my passing the exam.

Things have changed now, but you needed Morse Code proficiency to get a ham license back in the late 60’s. I started with a Novice license and then moved up to my Advanced.

The Novice exam was proctored by a fellow ham. The Advanced meant a trip to Lower Manhattan and the FCC office in the Customs Building, right near where the World Trade Center would later rise… and fall.

I thought it was cool to go, because I got to take the morning off from school.

I easily passed the written test and prepared for the Morse exam. I sat alone at a wooden school desks – one of a few arranged in a line.

A punch tape ran through some sort of mechanical reader to produce the code. It began – “dit dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah.” Three “V’s,” the universal letter group sent for testing and setting up equipment.

As the real text of the test began, I started to write. The Morse was being sent at 13 words per minute – basically, a character every second. And then, it happened.

From the Hudson River, a block or two away, a ship’s horn sounded. It was loud… and I was already nervous. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I missed 15-20 seconds. Just as important, it threw me off my rhythm.

To pass, you needed to copy one straight minute of the five in the test and I did… but barely. But the test didn’t end there.

The final step was sending Morse code. A simple key was bolted to the table. The examiner, a cigar chomping Mr. Finkleman, stepped up to listen.

I was so nervous, I couldn’t send cleanly. My hand was shaking… and it was the hand that was supposed to tap out letters.

Finkleman looked down and told me to head to the hallway and get a drink from the fountain. The hall was poorly lit, drably painted and had linoleum tiles. There was no confusion that government offices occupied this building.

When I walked back in, he asked me to send, “Federal Communication Commission.” I was still nervous, but I began to tap out, “dit dit dah dit, dit” and he stopped me. I had only sent “fe.”

“You pass,” he smiled.

It probably wasn’t a big day for Mr. Finkleman, but it sure was for me! Nearly 40 years later, I still remember it as if it was yesterday.

4 thoughts on “Born To Be A Ham”

  1. Hi Geoff.

    Nice of you to post the ham related article. I think your inference is about the FCC’s announcement today that Morse Code will no longer be required for amateur radio licenses.

    I am pleased to see this, and believe that it will bring another influx of new hams into our ranks. I am a “slow-code extra”, having passed the 13 wpm test. I sometimes operate cw, especially during DX contests.

    I’m sure you will hear some decry that this will be the death of ham radio, but they said the same thing about the no-code tech license, the FM and repeater debate, the SSB vs AM, the phone vs. cw, et al.

    73 de Jim, KD1YV

  2. Thanks for the nice description of the New York City FCC field office, where I passed my General exam in the summer of 1966. From your description, I think I had the very same examiner. For all I know, he may have been chomping on the very same cigar.

    I took the code test first, passed (but probably not by much), then sat down at one of those little desks to take the written exam. I looked at the test, was amazed at how simple the questions were, at least compared to the confounding stuff in the ARRL License Manual, and put on my glasses, just to make sure that I wasn’t seeing things. I wasn’t; sometimes you’re just pleasantly surprised.

    I’m not sorry to see the Morse requirement go. But I was not what you’d call a natural at learning the code, so there was something exhilarating about doing something you never thought you could do.

  3. Geoff

    Great memories ! I took my General exam in San Francisco in 1961 or so. Sounds like the FCC had duplicate exam rooms ! I can’t remember much about the FCC engineer that gave the code test though. In San Franciso fog horns were the QRM. Fortunately it was a clear day.

    I have kept my original call, WA6NGH, all these years because it was my first real ID. It even predates my drivers license number, social security number, and Navy ID number.


    Sam WA6NGH

  4. Nice story and Blog Geoff. FYI shows a Bob Semensohn, WA2IIC in Plainview, NY. Would that be your elmer? I fondly remember mine, “Ragtime Rick” Graffing KD8OO (ex WB8DBA) a local musician.


    Mike W8RF

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